Level crossing removals: let's shake it up a bit

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Level crossing removals: let's shake it up a bit

Both major political parties are talking up level crossing removals as part of their transport policy repertoires; the ALP are promising to remove 50 and the Coalition promising 40. At the recent pay-TV only people's forum, Daniel Andrews was pressured on timeframes should the ALP win Government and he announced an eight-year period to complete the 50 crossing removals.

Eight years is an ambitious timeframe in anyone's book and should ALP form government after November 29th, it will be a benchmark that the Government (should they form it) will be judged on.

As for the coalition's promise of 40 level crossing removals either started, funded or planned, Daniel Bowen has an interesting write up breaking down the numbers; it appears the Coalition are claiming the 13 road over rail or rail over road bridges created as part of the Regional Rail Link project as true crossing removals (when there was no level crossing to begin with).

Regardless, the ALP and Coalition clearly aim to ramp up further removals throughout the metropolitan area and given promises from one side of politics - to do so many in a relatively short period of time - it's hard to not feel uneasy about the potential for inevitable compromise should the proverbial hit the fan.

The Office of Victorian Government Architect, as part of their Victorian Design Review Panel series, has a relevant two-pager with the title Level Crossing Removals: Lessons Learned. The strategic issues section is summarised:

  • A level crossing removal is more than an engineering project which physically separates road and rail.
  • View the project as a catalyst for urban renewal.
  • Establish a vision for the site that is broader than improving transport efficiency.
  • Include the expertise of urban design professionals in the development of the design.
  • Develop site-specific urban design guidelines.
  • Allow a reference design to be revised and challenged by the project/bidding team.
Office of Victorian Government Architect

I recently had the chance to take a wander around one of the most recent examples of grade separation + new station rebuild at Mitcham. All in all it's an impressive new station with all the trimmings you'd expect.

Station Street which intersects with Whitehorse Road now looks (and more importantly feels) connected with the new concourse built above the lowered tracks with an excellent less-than-50m walk to bus stops on both the northern and southern platforms. Slick deep blue tiles, modern ticket office and a healthy smattering of retail space meld the whole precinct together and the station feels truly a part of the existing commercial strip to the north.

Level crossing removals: let's shake it up a bit
New Mitcham Station with grade separation of Mitcham Road. Image Modscape

Perhaps my only two criticisms for the station relate to the surface car parks that are a typical feature of many suburban railway stations. To the left of the picture above, an open-air car park sits wasting away when really the land should be put to more valuable use.

Sure there's always going to be a need for commuter car parking, but in situations like Mitcham it was disappointing that surface car parking still dominates the northern periphery of the station.

Visiting urbanist and former Chief Planner of Vancouver, Brent Toderian, last month made an extremely valid point when he said Australian cities have an enormous amount of heavy rail infrastructure in place already and our primary failing is getting the land use around stations right.

Level crossing removals: let's shake it up a bit
Modu-fabulous, Mitcham Station concourse looking toward Whitehorse Road. Image Modscape

I guess my fears (and hopes) for Melbourne's grade separation frenzy that we're likely to witness whomever wins Government on Saturday can be summed thus:

We should expect nothing less than the architectural quality of Mitcham for each and every one of the projects which result in a new station rebuild. Plus the Planning and Transport Ministers should work together to ensure that each project doesn't surround each new station with hectares of wasteful surface car parking, regardless of whether a project is in the inner, middle or outer rings of Melbourne.

Modular and prefabricated approach should not only be encouraged but prioritised. If you look at the ALP's aspirations, 50 projects is a lot of work and there's going to be a great deal of commonality between them; a fantastic opportunity to put work in the hands of advanced manufacturers.

Where a station is currently two single platforms, rail engineers, urban designers and the purse string holders should look at rebuilding the new stations with island platforms where possible. Nunawading saw this happen, but Mitcham and Springvale have not had this treatment.

Island platforms make it easier for passengers - no need for passengers unfamiliar with a station's configuration to stop and think which platform they need to go to before heading through the ticketed area (one of many passenger-positive reasons) - and the platforms would have greater passive surveillance from concourses and from outside station boundaries above in the case where a station is lowered like at Mitcham.

And finally, let's get land use right. There is plenty of scope for PPP integration at new stations; the Residential Growth Zone should be employed liberally on land adjacent to new stations and car parking should quite literally be out of sight and and out of mind.

Lead image credit: Nunawading Station, Grimshaw via E-Architect.co.uk.

View more Mitcham Station images on modscape.com.au.

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Discussion (7 comments)

johnproctor's picture

one thing about surface carparking is that its a good way to land bank to the land until proper high density would be expected, and is deliverable at a location.

obviously Mitcham now has a few 4-5 storey buildings in place so the market is proven there but in time the community will come to accept maybe 10 stories on some of those carparks you are talking about.

I think Labor would struggle to get 50 built in 8 years... however in the short term they can piggyback off the Liberals planning with about 10 in some level of design development or even pre-construction

Clayton/Centre (part of Cranbourne-Pakenham project)
Main Road

so needing to do 6 a year for the next 8 years to meet the promise Labor have the first 10 for the next 2 years ready to go.

Melbman's picture

Land use around stations is a big issue really. Getting the most out of those sites, without NIMBY pressures, is always going to be a balancing act. Theres a lot of value in that land though that could be extracted to make PT projects move from pipedream to reality.

I think the Labor plan is way too ambitious to even be considered feasible. Sounds great on paper, but the cost, planning and strategy seems far too one dimensional (too many eggs in one basket).

With all their other promises, along with big compensation payouts for EWL ("Dan" Andrew, ripping up a contract that you think is worthless does not come for free) and all the other costs of governing, no idea how this will play out.

It seems that all the savings that Labor have now released are Coalition infrastructure projects, including Metro Rail Tunnel and EWL, however that compensation payout was not even considered.

Unfortunately, I fear we might as well shut up shop as investors will not only run by decisions made on EWL, but also union power that will come back with watering down of codes that are designed to control costs and tactics used on work sites. This will likely make it a very unattractive business investment climate from day 1 of their govt.

Oh the joy.

Riccardo's picture

Melbman I think you can do better than partisan comments that parrot the Libs.

I'm no fan of ALP (or the unions) either, but the union-EWL-"Dan" in quotes is straight out Labor-bashing on a platter from Lib HQ. This is not the purpose of this website.

I think 50 in 8 years is ambitious too, but I doubt the electorate will quibble if only 47 or 43 or a recognisably large number is delivered - the transformation will be profound.

As a Sydneysider, it has always troubled me how bad the situation was in Melbourne, and no, I don't buy any of the usual topography blah blah that Melbourne people have tried to use in their defence.

It was the result of a post-war policy, the same one Sydney had, of incremental removal of crossings but the policy was discontinued in Melbourne for no particular reason, while Sydney used 3 decades to pretty well eliminate them, and even 3 of the remaining 10 have replacement planned.

Melbourne denialism does nothing to aid the cause. Look at what happened on the Monash-Arterial where the new Gardiners Creek freeway was built with no rail grade seps done at the same time, despite the obvious cost saving and the obvious improvement in the performance of the ROAD that would have resulted.

Agree with Jpro that the ALP policy can get off to a flying start with the plans for 10 crossings pretty close to ready, and the money available if the port lease flies.

BTW, my comment on this level crossing policy would be the same if it was the Liberals' policy.

Melbman's picture

^^ Sorry if it came across as partisan, but overall my fear is real about what priorities that Labor have put forward.

I too would love to see more rail crossings removed but this just doesn't seem to add up.

I just want to see a broader transport strategy used than just level crossings with all the money. There are still other larger scale projects that need the cash immediately, rather than just focusing on one thing. Even the Libs have targeted level crossings AND road and rail projects, which many still think is not enough, yet Labor are offering less again.

Ian Woodcock's picture

Level Crossing removals need to be the primary focus in Melbourne. Although mostly they are presented as being about the issue of private vehicle congestion, they a more important for public transport. Buses cross rail lines at over 100 level crossings, and there are 4 that carry trams. Increasing capacity through service boosts on any mode / route where there are such crossings is not possible without grade separation. Run more trains, the road-based modes get congested, the system seizes up. So, to run more trains, to actually utilize the full benefits of Melbourne Metro etc., sufficient level crossings must be removed to allow dramatically increased frequencies. Many PT advocates argue that the most cost-effective way to improve PT access and mode-share is to rationalize the buses into more direct routes in a network pattern, and run many more services. This may be true, but the benefits can't be realized without removing the level crossings that will ruin any attempts to run better timetables (either by 'pulse' timetabling or by 'turn-up-and-go' timetabling, it's the same either way). So getting rid of those level crossings really is the key.

There are more cost-effective ways of spending the money to achieve these outcomes, too. While Mitcham lies at the top of a hill and trenching the tracks and decking over for the station is the best transport outcome, this approach is the most expensive (apart from boring an actual tunnel), and most disruptive, and not necessarily the ideal approach in many other places. I would argue there is a very strong case to re-visit the proposed designs for all of those that the LNP left on the books when it lost office. In pretty much all instances, a rail-over-road approach would be a better way to do them. It would be far less expensive (could be as much as 1/3 the cost), less disruptive, would be better from a transport function view (more efficient way to run trains), and could be better from an experiential and design view than putting trains into 9m deep trenches lined with shotcrete and anti-suicide fencing.

* Elevated rail is *not* the same as a road overpass, and this is extremely important for those interested in the urban design implications. Compare, for example the following:

* Elevated rail stations: Glenferrie, Auburn, Canterbury, Balaclava, Kensington, North Richmond, Collingwood, Victoria Park, Gardenvale - note how at all of these stations, the urban streetscape is relatively uninterrupted by the rail viaduct, and in some, the rail-bus / rail-tram transfer is extremely good (i.e. very closely connected). In some case, particularly Glenferrie and Auburn, the station forms part of the streetscape. You don't hear calls from these communities to have their stations dropped into a trench because of its 'impact' on the local area, or concerns about property values. These are some of the most desirable places in Melbourne.

* Road overpasses over rail: Burnley, Sunshine, Newport, Oakleigh. Very unpleasant effects on the local area, hard to imagine how a decent urban streetscape could be created around these structures. Where do the pedestrians get to go? Either footbridges or underpasses. Road-under-rail underpasses are similarly negative urban environments, no matter how much they are dressed up. It's hard to see how they could be 'urbanised' with retailing or anything else.

This distinction is important, because apart from these largely historic examples (which are part of Melbourne's heritage) we don't really have any evidence of grade separations from recent experience in Melbourne other than rail-under-road (like Mitcham, Springvale, Nunawading) or stations-as-footbridges (Sunshine, Footscray, West Footscray, Williams Landing, Roxburgh Park, Coolaroo, to name a few) where intermodal transfer access may not have been improved as much as it could have been had a full grade separation been undertaken. And yes, it would have been prohibitively expensive at many of these latter locations, but not the former necessarily. In any event, a very large number of the planned 50 level crossing removals would be prime candidates for rail-over-road, and it is to be hoped that those charged with the responsibility for making them happen will have the courage to actually do it. And then, we will have more up-to-date evidence upon which to discuss the merits of the various approaches than we have from recent experience that has been hampered by prejudice about what can work.

Riccardo's picture

Ian I worry that Tays and friends think their blog should be about buildings rather than transport, so we might not be able to keep talking about.

Agree you could do more than 50 level crossings for the same money if you did elevated.

Further, you should actually start thinking about the transport system's performance as a whole:

-driverless trains (possible when rail is elevated with no level crossings or other interfaces)

-rationalisation of stations like Burwood/Hartwell, Mont Albert/Surrey Hills, Willison/Riversdale, stations on the Upfield line, and I am sure there are others

-urban consolidation/TOD that incorporates the elevated or underground station

-better interface with tram and bus right at the site of the grade separated station

johnproctor's picture

Both good posts.

Mitcham I think did/does make sense rail under.

But some of the other decisions should definitely be revisited.

The obvious test case in the 50 is the 5-6 promised in the frankston line roughly centred around carrum. Putting anything under so close to the beach with water table issues will be interesting and rail over would do wonders to connect the back blocks of those areas directly through to the Nepean highway and beach without having the train line in the way. Potential for parkland/cycle track and retail (at stations and activity centres) under the rail

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